'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Pub

My grandfather often saw ghost builders building a red brick wall in the field behind the garden. That's why he never touched the pile of red bricks at the back of the garden. He had many reasons for not touching things. He wouldn't touch the cat as a matter of principle, and he wouldn't touch a moss-covered rock in the orchard because he claimed it was a seat used by the fairies. He says he saw the fairies there one evening. They were digging a hole. This is why he refused to touch shovels.

My cousin Bertie and his fiancee, Miriam, once spent a week in a cottage by the sea. It was a relaxing week of long walks along the coast, boat trips and dinner in seafront restaurants. On Friday evening they decided to go to a pub. As they walked along a path overlooking the sea they met a man who wore a black hat that had seen better days, and lots of them. The shoes were as old as the hat -- the shoes and the hat were like book-ends for the middle-aged man in between. He had a curious smile on his face. Bertie and Miriam thought he'd be an interesting book to read.

He raised his hat when he said, "Good evening." The smile remained in place. It suggested he knew something they didn't -- that's the impression they got. Bertie said they were on their way to the pub.

"The very place I'm going to," he said. "But seeing as we're heading in opposite directions, I'm guessing that my 'the' is pointing a different way to the 'the' ye're following. You can't trust signposts. They'll point the wrong way, and sometimes they won't point out the things you really should be seeing, so you'll only get an incomplete appreciation of the area if you're just a tourist. The signpost of 'the' should always point towards the pub I'm heading for. After you've been to this one, all other pubs will become 'a pub'. This one will be the pub. If I've kindled a flame of curiosity, ye're more than welcome to follow me there."

"It's more than a flame," Bertie said.

He introduced himself as Vincent and he said, "Follow me."

He took them to a narrow, winding path that entered a cave of briers. Rays of evening sunlight made it through the thick roof of thorns above. The path led them to an old building. The walls were crumbling. It looked as if it had been abandoned for decades. Most of the ceiling had fallen in, and all of the floorboards in the floor above had been taken away. They could see the blue sky through the bare rafters of the roof.

He opened a door that led to a dark stairwell. They didn't like where this 'the' was heading. He said, "Don't worry about the surroundings. It gets better."

They climbed the stairs. It led them to a corridor that was lit by a single bare light bulb. The carpet on the floor was worn away. The walls were covered with old wallpaper. There was a door at either side. At the end of the corridor they climbed another flight of stairs. The steps were bare and they creaked.

After more corridors and more stairs, Vincent finally stopped outside a door and said, "We've reached the 'e' of the 'the'. It was a long journey, but it was worth it. That's what ye'll be saying when ye walk away this evening. Ye'll say it would have been worth going over road, river and rail to get to this place."

He opened the door and let them walk in first. It looked like most country pubs they'd been in, apart from the fact that it was so well lit by the three large skylights displaying three squares of clear blue sky. There were just a few other people in the pub.

Bertie insisted on buying Vincent a drink. The three of them sat at a table underneath one of the skylights. The man at the next table was alone. There was a case containing a flute on the seat next to him. Vincent said to him, "Are you waiting for Meredith?"

"I've lost her again," the man said.

"You haven't lost her. You just can't find where she lives."

"She's gone."

"As soon as I finish my drink, I'll show you where she lives."

Bertie and Miriam went with them to Meredith's place. They left through a door at the other side of the pub. Vincent had no trouble finding his way through the maze of corridors. They descended a flight of stairs and took a left. Vincent knocked on a door at the end of the corridor and they heard a woman say, "Come in."

Vincent opened the door and they went inside. Meredith was watering plants on a windowsill. There was a beautiful view of the sea through the window. Vincent introduced her to Bertie and Miriam.

Miriam noticed the painting on the wall. "This painting looks like the ones in the pub," she said.

"They're all done by the same artist," Meredith said. "He often has very vivid dreams. In some of those dreams he gains things, but in one of them he thought he'd lost his leg. He believed it was gone for good until he woke up. He painted this one in honour of not losing his leg. But he had lost his shoes, and that lends the painting a melancholy air. He's been obsessed with his legs ever since. He met his wife at an outdoor swimming pool and they both felt a connection straightaway. He told her it was a good place to meet, when they had so little clothes on, because they could both see that the other wasn't missing limbs, and that's something they'd be wondering about until they found out for certain and it could take weeks before they undressed enough to find out for certain. She wasn't put off by that. She just said it wouldn't have taken weeks. I'm on my way to see him now, if ye'd like to come along."

Bertie and Miriam agreed to go, but they regretted this on the way there, as Meredith told them more about Charlie, the artist. His arch-enemy was a man called Andrew, but Andrew himself was largely unaware of this. Andrew was always smiling. There were slight variations on the smile for different occasions. His funeral smile was slightly different to his 'I just won at the greyhound track' smile. He could vary his funeral smile to express sympathy or to show his admiration for the deceased. Charlie was convinced that the smile was a means of hiding the evil plan being concocted in his brain, and that he was planning something only a Bond villain would contemplate. And that left Charlie to fill the shoes of Bond. His shoes wouldn't conceal guns or rockets, but his head concealed weapons that were far more dangerous. He kept coming up with outlandish plans to thwart the schemes he thought were being enacted by Andrew. Meredith was there to throw a spanner in the works of Charlie's plans before someone got hurt. All three of them were kept occupied: Andrew with his smiling, Charlie with his planning, and Meredith with her spanner-throwing.

When Charlie opened his door, Meredith introduced him to Bertie and Miriam. He invited them all in. There was a workbench at one side of the room. It was full of tools, bits of metal and plastic, wires and circuit boards, nuts and bolts. There were blueprints on the wall.

Meredith asked him what Andrew was planning this time, and Charlie told them about the people who get blown away by the sea breeze. There's a flag at the beach, and you can only read the words on it when the wind is strong. It says 'If you can read this, make sure you have an anchor'. Some lifeguards look out to sea. Others look back over the land. When they see someone being blown away they run with an anchor, or let the wind take them. There are men with nets who try to catch people for fun. It's like fishing. They always let the catch go again.

"Andrew is trying to catch people who get blown away," Charlie said. "And he won't be letting them go again. I don't know why he wants them. I suspect he wants to use their legs. But whatever his reason is, he won't succeed. I've come up with a plan to stop him. A woman will sing in the pub this evening. She'll pretend to be French. Andrew will get up to sing himself because he's physically incapable of not getting up to sing. She'll tell him he has a beautiful voice. One thing will lead to another and he'll take her back to his place to see his collection of clocks. When he goes to the kitchen to get some drinks, she'll open the door to let me in. I'll go to his bedroom and leave this mechanical spider under his bed, and then I'll leave through the window. The spider is radio controlled. Later that night it will emerge from beneath the bed and bite him. The poison will kill him instantly. And then as soon as I press this button on the control, the spider will transform into a harmless Rubik's cube."

After they left Charlie's place, Meredith said, "I suppose we should go to see Andrew and keep an eye on him for the rest of the evening. He'd normally be in the beer garden at this time in the evening."

Bertie said to her, "Wouldn't it be safer just to tell Charlie that Andrew isn't up to anything."

"This is good for him. The constant planning keeps him busy, and keeps him out of trouble."

"I'd have thought it's landing him right in trouble."

"He's never succeeded so far. I've seen to that."

When they got to the beer garden Andrew was leaning on a railing and looking out over the sea. He was smiling. Meredith introduced him to Bertie and Miriam. They went back to the pub to get another round of drinks, and they stayed there when a woman started singing in a French accent. She said her name was Nicole. Meredith went to get her violin, and when she came back she played with the flautist while Nicole sang.

Charlie was right in thinking that Andrew couldn't avoid singing. He sang a few songs and when he sat down again Nicole came over to him and told him he had a beautiful voice. He bought her a drink and she ended up telling him her life story. She said she had been left at the altar by a surfer, and she had vowed never to let love back into her life again. She had been dead inside until she returned to the sea. Now there's a spark of feeling inside her again.

"I should have listened to my family," she said. "They told me he was less than a fly or a rat. But I saw an artist when I saw the beautiful lines he made in the waves. I saw a sensitive soul. I didn't think he'd be capable of anything as menial as sleeping with a waitress in a van, but he was. I thought he was on a higher plane. He wouldn't waste words on fools. He played table tennis with such disdain. This is the first time I've returned to the sea since he left, and it's done something to me. I feel alive again."

They went back to the beer garden to look out over the sea as the sun set. When he told her that he restores old clocks she said she'd love to see them, and they went back to his place.

Meredith, Vincent, Bertie and Miriam waited for a few minutes before following them. They found Charlie waiting outside Andrew's place. He was listening at the door.

Bertie wondered if he was dreaming. He feared that he was going to lose something, and he hoped it wouldn't be his legs.

When Charlie whispered, "He's going to the kitchen now," Meredith thought it was time to act. She took out a nail scissors and she said to Bertie, "Do you mind if I take the buttons from your shirt?"

"Go ahead," Bertie said. If he had to lose something, he'd settle for losing the buttons on his shirt.

She cut them off and dropped them on the ground. Charlie immediately fell to his knees and stared at the buttons. He didn't even notice when Nicole opened the door.

Meredith said, "He's very sensitive to buttons. In his dreams the skies are full of buttons. Right now he's trying to make out the constellations."

Meredith, Vincent, Bertie and Miriam spent the next half-hour looking down at Charlie as he looked at the buttons. When Nicole was leaving, Andrew saw Charlie on the floor and he said, "Was he trying to kill me again?"

"Yeah," Meredith said.

Andrew shook his head and laughed. "He's mad," he said.

He invited them all in for a drink. Charlie chose to stay outside with the buttons, but Andrew gave him a drink anyway.

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys the sound of the sea. The wife has started playing a CD of sea sounds, such as waves, sea gulls, fog horns and so forth. He needs something to relax after the drama of the hurling on Sunday, when Limerick beat Waterford. I never thought I'd desperately want Limerick to win an all-Ireland final.